Speaking Truth to Power

by Nigel Warburton, originally published in the 2012 edition of Humanitie magazine.

As I write, a fourteen -year-old girl, Malala Yousafzai, lies struggling for her life in a hospital in Pakistan, the target of a Taliban hitman sent to silence her forever.

She may survive. Doctors have removed a bullet from her skull, and her condition is described as ‘stable’.

She may yet live a full life and realise her wish to become a political leader. Or perhaps by the time you read this she is already dead or so severely brain damaged that she will be dependent on others for the rest of her life.

This peace activist’s ‘crime’ was to have spoken up for Western values, for education for women, and in praise of President Obama. She once declared: “I don’t mind if I have to sit on the floor at school. All I want is education. And I’m afraid of no one.”

Even as an atheist I can’t resist a quiet (non-religious) prayer for this young woman with such a passion for learning who deserves a far better future than she is likely to have. No wonder the Taliban want to block women’s education: education is a source of power and emancipation. It is through writing and speech-making that many oppressed minorities come to the attention of the wider world. Those who can describe their plight attract outside attention; those who cannot express their experience in words or images have to rely on outsiders to interpret their lives.

In the age of the internet a single voice can be heard globally through Twitter, weblogs or YouTube. Oppressors know this. They fear those who speak out against injustice. They find ways to lock down the internet, lo imprison dissidents, or terrify them into silence using torture or threats. Those who want to cloak their politically motivated censorship invoke laws against criticism of governments or against blasphemy to pre-empt or stifle discussion. It rarely works for long, though it can be hell for those on the receiving end.

Imprisoning the punk band Pussy Riot, ostensibly for causing religious offence, unleashed worldwide anger and publicity for the anti-Putin movement in Russia. The (highly-educated) members of the band spoke up eloquently in defiance of their treatment, and the world listened and amplified their criticisms of the abuse of presidential power.

Now, the Taliban’s attempted assassination of a child will haunt them as across Pakistan and beyond, Malala has been transformed into a symbol of and focus of resistance. They may succeed in murdering Malala, but they have sown a field of dragons’ teeth.

John Stuart Mill, writing in On Liberty, argued that dissent was valuable, even when the dissenter was in the wrong. For him those who express strong views do us all a good deed by forcing us to clarify what we ourselves believe: dissenters prevent our beliefs congealing into dead dogma, even when they embrace false doctrines. Yet how much more powerful is the voice of someone who dares to defend the truth when others are too afraid to speak out.

It is an outrage that the Taliban has disrupted a young girls’ education in Pakistan and governments and politicians should be ashamed that a young blogger made this point with greater eloquence and bravery than any of them. Her legacy should be an overwhelming support for education for all in Pakistan. We live in an age when those bold enough to speak truth to power can change everything.

Photo courtesy: Statsministerens kontor, Creative Commons

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